After 15 Years and $8.6 Billion from U.S., Afghan Opium Sets Record

Special inspector general for nation's reconstruction drops scathing report on 'failure' to eradicate insurgent funding source

Despite $8.6 billion in U.S.-funded efforts to eradicate drugs in Afghanistan, the country is producing more poppy and opium than ever before, according to a scathing report released Thursday.

The report by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), based on 21 and a half years of research, details how futile the United States has been in disrupting a drug trade that makes up an estimated 60 percent of funding for insurgents fighting the American-backed government in Kabul.

The $8.6 billion spent was from fiscal years 2002 through 2017. Despite that money, opium production increased 63 percent in just 12 months from fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2017. That is enough to produce 900 tons of exportable heroin. The report estimates Afghanistan’s fiscal year 2017 opium output at $4.1 billion to $6.3 billion — as much as a third of the country’s gross domestic product.

The report also indicates that opium cultivation now covers some 1,200 square miles — roughly 20 times the land mass of the District of Columbia. The 590,000 Afghans employed in the industry exceeds the combined size of the country’s army and police force.

“To put it bluntly, these numbers spell failure.”

Despite that target-rich environment and all of those billions of dollars, opium seizures over the last decade represent less than 5 percent of the total production in fiscal year 2017 alone, according to the report.

“To put it bluntly, these numbers spell failure,” Inspector General John Sopko said during a presentation of his findings at an event hosted by the national security think tank New America. “And unfortunately, the outlook is not that encouraging.”

Sopko said he personally has seen poppy fields throughout the countryside and countless drug addicts on the streets and under the bridges of the Afghan capital.

“One thing that we and Afghanistan have in common is our wars on drugs have been long and not very successful. That is a key message today,” he said. “Fighting drugs is not very easy, especially in a war zone, especially amid larger failures in a reconstruction effort. And especially with partners that cannot or will not take on the corruption and violence that narcotics fosters.”

Sopko said one reason for failure is that the United States has carried on a counter-narcotics campaign without a comprehensive, coordinated strategy. He said that can be seen in the fact that certain provinces and regions have seen periodic reductions in cultivation since 2002 but made no lasting impact.

U.S. efforts have alienated farmers by destroying their crops without offering an alternative way to earn money, Sopko said.

“It is significantly unrealistic to expect significant progress from counter-narcotics efforts without being able to exert reasonable and persistent control over land area and transportation routes,” he said.

Sopko said the stakes go beyond the flow of opium and heroin that end up in the United States. He said it represents an “existential threat” to the entire mission in Afghanistan. He noted that the counter-narcotics plan has not been updated since 2012.

“We are using a six-year-old strategy, that we know has failed, in the hope that, miraculously, it will succeed,” he said.

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Sopko also challenged the recent strategy of bombing drug labs from the sky.

“We question whether using B-52s to blow up labs about the size of this part of the room is the right way to do it,” he said.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including:

  • Adopting shared, prioritized goals led by the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
  • Tying counter-narcotics efforts to larger U.S. security and governance objectives.
  • Coordinating implementation with longer-term development assistance, and concentrating those efforts in places where the government has a “modicum of control.”

PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.

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PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected].